Ferdie Pacheco, once his ring doctor, has said on national television that Muhammad Ali should retire. Such a heart, Pacheco said. Such memories. Retire now and let us remember the way it was, the doctor said. Go gently into the night. Across America, volunteers put up sandbags against the flood of tears from the doctor's eyes.
"I'm not God," said Angelo Dundee. "I'm not going to say all that baloney. Muhammad quits when he wants to quit. Not when I think he ought to. Who am I? He wants to go on, he goes on. He's earned it. He can do what he wants and nobody ought to say any of that baloney about 'heart.'"
And yet . . .
Yet in the next breath, Dundee is saying he told Ali to retire. He told him the morning after Ali lost in championship to Leon Spinks in February. He said he told Ali there was nothing left to prove. From all sides now, Ali is being told to hang up the gloves . . . by Pacheco, the romantic; by his doctors, worried about 20 years of pounding, and, yesterday, for the first time publicly, by Angelo Dundee, who may know best.
Dundee is one of boxing's enduring geniuses, a manager and trainer who helped produce seven world champions, beginning with Carmen Basilio in 1955. He's had Willie Pastrano, Ralph Dupas, Sugar Ramos, Luis Rodriguez, Jimmy Ellis - and a kid named Cassius Clay, with whom he's spent a lifetime in a hurricane . . . surviving Sonny Liston and the Black Muslims, Vietnam and Joe Frazier . . . working the corner through six presidents and three Ali wives . . . lasting exactly forever, which is how long it took Clay to become Ali, how long it took him to become a television spokesman selling cars for the Ford Motor Co. (a job he starts soon).
Sing Dundee no songs of sweet memories. More than anyone, perhaps, he stands in awe of what Ali was in the ring. When others saw only the dazzle, Dundee saw courage. Take a name; Louis, Marciano, Johnson, Dempsey, Dundee says, "Ali is the best ever."
So, at 36, Ali is not the incomparable athlete of 24. So he has lost the world championship to a man with seven fights' experience. So he said two days ago that his doctors have advised him to retire. So Ferdie Pacheco, the ring doctor, cries out against the defiling of beauty. So what? None of that changes what Ali was. He was, and will be, a gift to us, his talent a reminder of man's majesty.
And as none of that diminishes Ali, none of it was on Angelo Dundee's mind when he went to Ali's motel room about 7 o'clock in the morning the day after the Spinks' fight. He was to catch an early plane and he wanted to say something to the fighter. As Dundee remembers it, the conversation went this way . . .
"Forget it now, Muhammad," the trainer said.
"No, I gotta get a check," the fighter said. By "check," Ali meant a physical examination, Dundee said.
"You don't need any checks," Dundee said. "There wasn't anything wrong with you. You were in great shape. Just forget it now, Muhammad. You got nothing to prove to anybody."
Dundee said he and his wife were in the motel room with Ali and his business manager, Herbert Muhammad. Ali hadn't asked for Dundee's advice. He never asks anyone for advice. But Dundee is no hired yes-man in the Ali entourage. In the ring, when it matters most, Ali listens to one man - Dundee. He listened this morning in February. He just didn't hear anything.
So Dundee is still at work for Ali. He said his bit. No romance, no self-congratulations on trying to save Ali from himself. All belongs to no one but Ali, Dundee says and the trainer will be in the fighter's corner until the end.
They go against Spinks again, the date set for Sept. 15 in New Orleans, and Ali will win this time. "Spinks is good enough to beat Ali again if Ali fights the same way, laying on the ropes, that rope-a-dope baloney," Dundee said. "But the big key for Muhammad is that he can be the first man to win the championship three times. That'll give him the electricity necessary."
"I think he'll make up his mind after that fight," Dundee said.